The Presence of Black Voters in the 18th and 19th Centuries

October is Black History Month in the UK, as institutions like the History of Parliament attempt to re-insert and highlight the Black experience into fields of history previously overlooking this. Here, we hear from Helen Wilson, PhD candidate with the History of Parliament and Open University, who is researching the Black and Mixed Ethnicity Presence in British Politics, 1750-1850. As Helen explains, despite significant barriers to their inclusion, there are some active and engaged Black voters to be seen in this period…

There has been a marked change in the research into Black political participation in the eighteenth century; a topic now proving as rich an area of study as that of the participation of women. In the wake of modern scandals like the Windrush scandal the push for a more inclusive British political and social history is clear to see. In the last 20 years significant scholarship into Black British history has exposed the richness of Black lives in all areas of British life: Black MPs have been identified, as have Black property owners, and the mixed-race children of West Indian merchants and plantation owners have been recognised and studied.

One enduring area of interest is the British electoral system; how it functions now is under consistent scrutiny and the introduction of political reform in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a subject of increasing historical interest. For a long time, the unreformed parliament was seen as venal, corrupt and wholly unrepresentative. And in some respects that was correct: rotten boroughs, as characterised in Black Adder: The Third (s03e01), treating, and patronage were all real factors in eighteenth and nineteenth-century electoral politics, but now there is much research being conducted, by projects like the AHRC-funded Eighteenth Century Political Participation & Electoral Culture (ECPPEC) project, working to expand the narrow view that this corrupt system was all it was.

To be entitled to vote an individual had to meet specific criteria and these varied depending on which constituency an individual lived in and if this was a county or borough. A basic review of the franchise during the time period demonstrates that counties required a voter to own a property of at least 40 shillings. The boroughs had a significantly more complicated system with six distinct types of franchise, with some constituencies utilising two of these types at once. These franchise types range from fairly inclusive, if a resident was paying tax and owned or rented a property, to exclusive where only certain properties (burgess) conferred the right to vote and new burgesses were not allowed to be created. The basic premise was that the right to vote centred around wealth and property ownership.

Oil painting of Ignatius Sancho looking to the side. He is wearing a red waistcoat with gold trim and a dark blue overcoat with gold buttons. Sancho is in front of a plan brown background.
Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough,
1768, National Gallery of Canada via Wikimedia Commons

The existence of successful property-owning Black people juxtaposed against the slave trade feels apocryphal. However, the story of Blackness in Britain is not one or the other and to view it as such is a flattening of the experience. Black Britons were a relatively small part of the whole population, but they were by no means new to Britain in the eighteenth century. This is in part because the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been happening since the mid-sixteenth century. The interaction of Europeans with Africans had been long established and both free Africans and those in bondage lived in Britain. A common misconception of the state of slavery in Britain is that there were no slaves nor slave trading. This was not the case and those who were brought to Britain as children, taken from the coast of Africa or traded in the West Indies, came without their freedom and under the control of an often-wealthy master. This can be seen by the runaway slave advertisements in contemporary newspapers. However, as a result of Britain’s slavery activities in Africa and the West Indies there was a flow of people across these regions.

Black business owners like Ignatius Sancho (c.1731-1780) who owned a grocery shop in Mayfair and George John Scipio Africanus (c.1763-1834) who owned an agency business were both voters. They had both been enslaved during their early lives and by fortune had masters who chose to educate them and nurture their talents. It was not the standard and these men stand out; many in bondage in Britain did not have such opportunities and were never able to start businesses or own their own property. Sancho, however, voted in the 1774 and 1780 elections in Westminster and described his voting process in his letters, published posthumously.

The Westminster franchise was in the freeholders (people who owned their own property) and Sancho voted for two non-partisans in the first election and for two Whig candidates in his second election. He was considered for a long time the only example of a Black voter in the eighteenth century, until Africanus was found to have voted in three elections in Nottingham, in 1818, 1820 and 1826. He split his vote between the two parties on his first vote, he voted for both Tory candidates on his second vote and plumped (only used one of his votes and discarded the second) on his final vote. From his voting behaviour it is fair to say that he preferred the Tory candidates even though they were ultimately unsuccessful.

These two men are a perfect example of the Black presence in Britain. They were both brought to Britain under a system of ownership and by luck and their own ingenuity were able to participate politically. They both did this before the Great Reform Act 1832, which broadened the electorate by adding new constituencies like Birmingham and Manchester, making the requirements universal across the country instead of a patchwork and described who a voter could be. At this point all of the currently known Black voters voted prior to 1832, however the number of identified Black voters is still very small. As more research into Black political participation is conducted more individuals who were entitled to vote and used their vote will be discovered. Political participation took many forms in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and voting was only one element of the political process. Exploring eighteenth-century political culture through the lens of Black participation expands both the complex stories of the Black British experience and the nuanced local and national political landscape in Britain.

H W

Look out for a second blog from Helen later in the week…

Further Reading

Ignatius Sancho, Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho: an African, (Penguin Classics, 1998)

Philip Salmon, ‘‘Plumping Contests’: The Impact of By-elections on English Voting Behaviour, 1790–1868’, in By-elections in British Politics, 1832-1914, ed. by T. G. Otte and Paul Readman (Boydell Press, 2013), pp.23-50

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